Teaching Peace with Elyse: The Arts and Education!

Younger teachers often ask how I stay enthusiastic after 28 years of working with preschoolers. While the majority of my joyful engagement comes from the children themselves, some comes from reflecting.

During my time off this summer, I’ve had time to have a think about my long career.

Having been mentored several decades ago by Ruth Asawa, utilizing the arts in education has since become the core of my teaching. When Ruth hired me to work in collaboration with other young artists in the San Francisco public schools, I had no idea how this first grant in 1978 would shape the course of my career. While she is recognized worldwide for her intricate wire sculptures, locally she is also known for bringing the arts back to our public elementary and high schools.  The program I developed 28 years ago is a direct result of her mentoring. It utilizes the arts, specifically puppetry and the expressive arts, to artfully teach peace to preschoolers. 

In this period of history with the arts taking a back seat in public educational policy, one may question the importance of its role. To learn that the Dean of the School of Education at USF was speaking on the arts and education one block from my home felt like an answer to my inquiry.

Hearing Dean Kevin Kumashiro speak last night reminded me of why I love teaching and of the important roles that teachers and art play in the lives of children. I recognized my part in a long line of those who advocate for a child’s lifelong love of learning.

I was inspired by his provocative thinking regarding the gap between what we desire to teach and the many lenses which the student view the teaching. The essence of the lecture is contained in one of his books, Against Common Sense.

Kumashiro also spoke on how art stimulates learning in many of the academic fields, including mathematics. I remember Ruth advising me to include this in my first attempts at grant writing. I became discouraged when my 100-page application was turned down. With her access to the judges, she discovered and informed me that I’d actually come in second. That was all the motivation I needed to continue applying for grants, with greater success over the coming years.

After many decades as a teacher, recommitting to the work is periodically required. Between my time away, reflections on my teaching and last night’s lecture, I am again feeling the surge of energy I first felt when beginning my work with children. Observing the children enter my classroom and begin to explore the space, the materials and their relationships to each other fills me with joy. I am part of a long chain of the children’s advocates for learning that begins at home with parents as their first teachers.

Shifting from my own musings to the thoughts of children, I am reminded of what continues to fascinate me: the children’s inner world.

"There’s a monster, a big monster," the three-year-old told me.

I matched his tone and repeated his words. "There’s a monster, a big monster!"

Usually they’d be shooting it or spraying fire, and I’d be negotiating how they could stop the monster without being violent.

This child surprised me in saying rather matter-of-factly, "Elyse, there’s nothing we can do about it."

His acceptance or resignation of the imaginary situation caused me to pause. I wasn’t sure if he was feeling dis-empowered, but I felt prompted to ask, "How will you keep yourself safe?" I grew curious as to how he’d answer.

"Build a tent!" he shouted, then turned away, swiftly running to a corner of the room. He was immediately joined by several other children who had been listening to our exchange.

They piled pillows and closed off a corner of the room with two chairs. Having the power to create a safe space, I observed them relax. The monster was of no threat. The artful play was over.

They soon dispersed to make binoculars of cardboard tubes and spiders of sparkly pipe cleaners and letter beads, no longer needing their dramatic play.

As teachers, we have the honor and privilege of being bridges between home and school for these young learners. I find art to be a bridge we can cross to enter the inner world that is home to children.